Patty Duke's Tragic Real-Life Story

Patty Duke was made for Hollywood. The actress most famous for her captivating role as the deaf and blind Helen Keller in 1962's The Miracle Worker, Duke showcased an impressive range of talent — yet her personal life was fraught with difficulty, pain, and frustration.

"Though I've been a professional actress since I was seven or eight, acting was never a dream of mine." Shockingly enough, the talented Duke begins her memoir, Call Me Anna, with these exact words, adding, "Yet when I think back to my earliest memory, it was of performing."

Patty Duke's colorful career spanned across seven decades, earned herself 13 awards, and even earned herself an Oscar for The Miracle Worker, which, as Britannica notes, made her "the youngest person to garner the full-size Oscar" at the time. In the latter portion of her career, her mental health advocacy took center stage, and the actress suddenly saw herself inspiring countless others. "She was so loved by so many people," said Duke's Miracle Worker costar, Melissa Gilbert (via Variety), adding, "She had a mind-boggling depth of talent [...] and survived being a child actor in the worst of circumstances [...] she was an extraordinary human being." Here is the tragic real-life story of Patty Duke.

Patty Duke was abandoned by her father

Patty Duke didn't exactly have a pampered upbringing. As she explains in her autobiography, Call Me Anna, until she was 12, the future actress grew up in a bedbug-infested apartment in a four-story walk-up in New York. As she writes, "the five of us [...] all lived in four rooms," noting that none of the rooms had doors.

If living in poverty wasn't enough, Duke's father was also an alcoholic. "From what I know and what I hear, he started out a happy drunk who loved his family and enjoyed a lot of dancing and good old times when he was younger," Duke wrote in her memoir. Somewhere along the line, the starlet's father "[drank] up his salary," and by the time Duke was six, her mother asked him to leave. As the Me, Natalie actress remembers, "I almost never saw him again."

Duke would later go on to struggle with her own addictions, yet she admits that her father's drinking had an effect on the entire family. "With me, part of the legacy is an awareness that I'm an addictive personality so I better keep on my toes," Duke reflected. Poignantly enough, instead of resenting the man whose demons drove their family apart, Duke still remembered him fondly for years to come. As she told People in 1999, "I worshipped my father."

Patty Duke felt abandoned by her mother, too

If being abandoned by her father wasn't enough, shortly after his departure, Patty Duke found herself left alone by her mother, too. According to an interview with People, Duke was introduced to the acting world by "John and Ethel Ross, New York theatrical managers." As she went on, "I became more successful in small parts and commercials [and] they began to take over my life, as well as my career."

So, what did that entail, exactly? It turns out, the Rosses agreed to take Duke on as a full-time client — on the condition that she live with them. "What a horrible, heartbreaking decision that must have been for my mother," recalls Duke. Considering her mom was a cashier raising three kids, the offer must have come as a relief.

While nobody knew what was to come from the future A-lister living with the Rosses, Duke recalls a "sinking feeling" upon first meeting the couple. "If there was ever a premonition I should have paid attention to, that was it," she recalled in her memoir, Call Me Anna. While the youngster tucked away these thoughts of fear, Duke was focused on one thing: her relationship with her mother. As she sadly told People years later, "Of course to me as a child, it was a clear case of abandonment."

Patty Duke was a manufactured Hollywood machine

Living with John and Ethel Ross wasn't exactly Patty Duke's introduction to the glitz and glam of Hollywood — at least, not fully. According to People, "she began to build an acting résumé — in TV ads, daytime soaps, bit parts on live dramas — more than 50 shows by the time she was 12." By then, she landed the role of her lifetime: that of Helen Keller in Broadway's The Miracle Worker. In fact, the play did so well, Duke even reprised her role in the 1962 film adaptation of the show, earning herself the Best Supporting Actress Oscar.

Of course, her fame came with a price. As Duke told People in 1999, she remembers that when she was eight, Ethel declared her name was to be changed. Born Anna Marie, her surrogate mother announced, "Anna Marie is dead. You're Patty now." Hauntingly, Duke wrote in her memoir, Call Me Anna, "It was as if she really did die. When people take away your name, they are taking away your identity."

If losing Anna Marie wasn't enough, the Rosses also cut her off from her mother and got rid of her New York accent, "training her in a repertoire of carefully rehearsed little speeches" (via People). Giving her a life of solitude, Duke remembers, "I saw no one but the Rosses except on the set. They obsessively controlled my life."

The Rosses distorted everything about Patty Duke's life

The years that Patty Duke spent with Ethel and John Ross were filled with oppression. The actress recalled to People that she wasn't allowed to have an "opinion about anything," which included some of the most basic habits such as how she bathed, what she wore, or even "closing the door to [her] room." Looking back, Duke saw herself as the "perfect Stepford child."

What's worse is that the Oscar-winning actress was essentially brainwashed into obedience — to the point where she got in legal trouble. Per People, in 1959, "she perjured herself before a New York grand jury investigating TV quiz shows." The year prior, Duke found herself on a game show, coached into memorizing the answers by the Rosses — who the following year told her "to lie to the grand jury." As she told the outlet, "At the very end of my testimony, a Congressman looked at me very sternly and asked me if I was sure I had told the truth [...] I said, 'No, sir. Everything I just told you was a lie.'"

If the public facade wasn't enough, Duke's private life with the Rosses wasn't any better. As People wrote in 1999, "There were limits to Patty's submissiveness. On two occasions, says Duke, John and Ethel each tried to fondle her in bed." Thankfully, the actress's response "was to vomit," which ultimately led to an end in the abuse.

Patty Duke escaped the Rosses... for something even worse

After so many tumultuous years of living with the Rosses, Patty Duke finally found an out. According to People, at just 17 years old, the actress fell in love with Harry Falk Jr. — then 31 — an assistant director on The Patty Duke Show. Trying to sabotage the couple's future, the Rosses moved the series to Los Angeles from New York, yet this only enraged Duke further. Moving into her own apartment and "[barring] them from the set," Duke continued her blossoming romance. By 1965, "just shy of her 19th birthday," the pair tied the knot.

"I didn't know how to be an adult. I had no preparation," mused Patty Duke to People, explaining her "increasingly manic mood swings." Although she was a bonafide A-lister by this point, Duke only further spiraled with Falk, developing an eating disorder and dropping to a scary 76 pounds. If that's not all, she also "began drinking heavily and taking Valium," which she estimates she overdosed on a terrifying eight times.

Of course, the marriage didn't last, and the duo divorced the following year, in 1967. "I just wasn't old enough to marry anyone," the starlet explained to People in 1977. "After the divorce, I was 23 and I felt the need to explore the whys and wherefores of my behavior and the kind of person I wanted to be. That's when I stopped trying to be 15 or 90 and tried 23 on for size."

Having children only worsened Patty Duke's mood swings

Following her divorce from Harry Falk Jr., Patty Duke only spiraled further. As People detailed in 1999, three years after her split from Falk, a 23-year-old Duke began her "affair with the 17-year-old Desi Arnaz Jr." — son of Lucille Ball. Although the I Love Lucy actress "demanded" her son stop seeing the troubled starlet, their tryst still continued for many months. That same year, in June, a manic Patty Duke "impulsively wed Michael Tell, a rock promoter who had been subletting her apartment." The marriage lasted 13 days.

Life only got more complex for Duke. Just before The Miracle Worker star tied the knot with Tell, she discovered she was pregnant. As it turned out, the actress had another secret affair going on, this time with The Addams Family actor, John Astin. She concluded the baby was his (it would later be discovered that it was Tell's), although "they agreed to keep their affair a secret until after their son Sean was born and Astin was divorced." In 1972, they finally got married, and Patty Duke found herself playing mom to her own son, along with Astin's sons from his previous marriage, David, Allen, and Tom.

"It was terrible," Duke recalled to People of the years she spent in the busy household. "I was a truly loving mom, but I didn't have the tools to do the job." As a result, the starlet "would retreat to the bedroom and her tranquilizers."

Patty Duke was finally diagnosed as bipolar in the '80s

"It began when I was 19," Patty Duke revealed to PBS of her manic mood swings. "It began with the Great Depression, not being able to get out of my bed for two or three months at a time except to use the bathroom. Crying, inconsolable crying." From there, the actress explained, the mania progressed even more, and she began to deny anything was wrong. By the time she had children, Duke admitted they "were being abused."

Per People, in 1982, when she was 35, Patty Duke finally sought help, and "a psychiatrist diagnosed her manic depression and prescribed lithium to control her mood swings." As the actress told the outlet, "It saved my life and it gave me life. Prior to that, I wasn't able to make any long-term decisions."

Unfortunately for the star, by the time she finally realized the source of her mood swings, it was too late for her marriage to John Astin. Becoming more of a "father figure" to her than a husband and a Buddhist set on converting his family, Astin and Duke divorced in 1985. In an interview with People that same year, Patty Duke spoke of her ex-husband with nothing but warmth, citing his "loving support" as a huge factor in her road to mental peace. "There is a deep and abiding love between us, but we just don't get along [...] We even laugh about it sometimes because it's so absurd."

Was one of Patty Duke's most iconic characters based on reality?

Around the time Patty Duke divorced her first husband, Harry Falk Jr., in 1967, she also starred in the now-cult classic, Valley of the Dolls. Acting alongside icons Sharon Tate and Barbara Parkins, Duke portrayed the neurotic and pill-addicted Neely O'Hara. As a trailer for the flick describes her character, "Patty Duke as Neely, who was such a nice kid — and then someone put her name in lights and turned her into a lush."

The quote may sound eerily familiar, as Duke's character of O'Hara seemed to imitate real life. "Many people came to suspect it was a case of casting to type," wrote People in 1985. "Rumors linking Duke to drugs, alcoholism and erratic behavior were reinforced by her rambling and incoherent appearance on the nationally televised Emmy Awards show in 1970," where the starlet took the stage to accept her award for Oustanding Single Performance in My Sweet Charlie. "The truth of the matter is that my condition had nothing to do with drugs or alcohol. I was having a serious emotional breakdown," Duke explained to People. "Unlike most people in trouble who fall apart in the privacy of their bedrooms, I fell apart on network television."

Was Patty Duke succumbing to Hollywood's dark side? As People notes, an emotional breakdown is much more likely, as Duke had also recently discovered she was pregnant, eventually giving birth the following year, in 1971.

Patty Duke's co-star and friend, Sharon Tate, was brutally murdered

In 1969, two years after starring in Valley of the Dolls together, Patty Duke's co-star and friend, Sharon Tate, was brutally murdered by Charles Manson's "family" of followers. Pregnant and married to Rosemary's Baby director, Roman Polanski, Tate's body was found on August 9th in Los Angeles, along with four others at the home the actress shared with Polanski (who was away at the time).

Tate almost had a different fate, one that would have led to a long and peaceful life. According to Curbed Los Angeles, before settling on the ill-fated home on Cielo Drive where she was killed, Tate and Polanski were actually renting out Duke's home on Summitridge Drive. According to Duke herself, they were even debating buying it.

In 2016, the same year Duke passed away, her friend William J. Jankowski who co-authored the actress's final book, In the Presence of Greatness, published her memoir. In it, Duke described her friendship with Tate in greater detail. As Jankowski told Fox News, "They shared a housekeeper who ultimately found the bodies and reported it to police. It haunted her for a long time." It turns out, "Duke and Tate were supposed to have dinner on the same evening the murder occurred," yet Duke declined at the last minute as she was sick with strep throat, and feared she would get her pregnant friend sick, as well.

Patty Duke's step-daughter drowned in a car accident

Although Patty Duke got a handle on her bipolar disorder in 1982, she still couldn't salvage her 13-year marriage to actor John Astin, whom she divorced in 1985. Luckily for Duke, she didn't have the opportunity to grieve her failed romance, as she swiftly hopped onboard a new project, A Time to Triumph.

The same year as her divorce, Duke traveled to Fort Benning, Ga. to shoot the flick (via People). Starring as an army helicopter pilot, she met Sgt. Michael Pearce, "who had been assigned to toughen up the actress." Falling in love, they wed in 1986, "and Duke became an enthusiastic stepmother to his daughters Raelene, then 10, and Charlene, 8," followed by Kevin, whom they adopted in 1988.

"I lucked out and found goodness personified," the actress gushed to People years later. Enjoying the simplicities of life, Duke claimed "a certain amount of ego [had] gone by the wayside," since starting her life with Pearce. Unfortunately for the actress, her peace didn't last all that long, as her mother (who had moved in with the family) passed away in 1992. By 1998, Raelene drowned in a car accident. Remarkably enough, Duke still remained with Pearce, and as she told the outlet, the devastation "drew [their] family closer together."

Patty Duke's memoirs served as opportunities to make amends

Once receiving the diagnosis that she had bipolar disorder at the age of 35, Patty Duke finally felt relief. "It was like a rebirth, a resurrection," she told Franciscan Media years later. "One of my greatest blessings has been the right diagnosis, the right doctor, and the right treatment." Suddenly, with the proper help, Duke was ready to make amends. "For me, forgiveness has been key [...] I went back to as many people as I could remember whom I had hurt or offended in some way during that dark time and asked for forgiveness."

"Although she was warned they would hurt her career," Duke decided to write two memoirs about her life, Call Me Anna in 1987, and A Brilliant Madness in 1992, reports First Things. "Far from damaging her stature, however, they received widespread acclaim for breaking the taboo about mental illness," thus establishing the controversial actress as "a powerful advocate for those suffering mental health issues."

"I choose to take responsibility for those things that I did, and I tried to not — you can't fix them," Patty Duke told Today in 1992. "You can't buy back that time, but to certainly explain to the people who were so seriously injured emotionally and spiritually that there was something else going on."

Patty Duke died at the age of 69

After spending the latter part of her career as a mental health advocate and reconciling with her family, "Patty Duke died suddenly and unexpectedly, at the age of 69," in 2016 (via First Things). Speaking to ET, her son and Lord of the Rings star Sean Astin revealed that his mother had been "suffering terribly" leading up to her passing when she succumbed to sepsis from a ruptured intestine.

Much like his mother, however, Astin looked towards the positive. "She was surrounded by her family," he told the outlet. "It was in the middle of the night and it was a race to get there. It was a very powerful experience. And then, in her last moments, she was at peace."

Remembered for her captivating roles, Astin also praised his mother, Patty Duke, for her newfound mission in life. "The more she opened up, the more she shared of her pain. [...] Now she had a new identity [...] and that was to share what she had gone through with other people."